The Story Behind Shaka Tea
How a couple from Kalama Valley came up with the idea of flavoring and bottling māmaki tea.
Harrison Rice and his wife, Bella Hughes, created Shaka Tea in 2015. The couple, married for six years, plans to expand the line to include more flavors next year.
Photos: Catherine Toth Fox
When Harrison Rice and Bella Hughes were living in Dubai, the couple, who met at Boston University, would bring back māmaki tea from Hawaiʻi whenever they visited.
“It’s so warm there, we’d drink it iced,” says Hughes, 30, who grew up in Pacific Heights and graduated from Punahou School. “We’d just make it for fun, adding flavors like liliko‘i from Kenya and mango juice.”
The pair, who had two young kids, wanted to move back to Hawai‘i. After doing some research, they realized no one was making shelf-stable māmaki tea in bottles—and nothing flavored—despite the plant’s slew of documented health benefits including metabolism-boosting catechins, antioxidants and nutrients.
And they loved that māmaki is an endemic plant grown nowhere else in the world.
“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to take this amazing māmaki and do something with it?” Hughes says.
Shaka Tea comes in three flavors, named after Hawai‘i towns that are meaningful to the couple. (They honeymooned in Hilo and Honoka‘a.)
Roya, almost 2 years old, loves guava gingerblossom. Her brother, Koa, who’s almost 4, loves Shaka Tea, too. Hughes says the drink is great for kids because there’s no added sugar.
The idea for Shaka Tea hatched in 2014, with the couple experimenting in their home kitchen with various flavors the following year. By the summer of 2015, they had found a packing and bottling company in Gridley, California that would brew the loose māmaki leaves and bottle it in small batches. They invested their own savings and got a loan to start this business, while working side jobs to pay the bills. (Hughes is a curator and art critic; Rice is a public relations consultant and Lyft driver. They also rent out the master bedroom of their Kalama Valley home on Airbnb.)
Brewing—and not using extracts to create the drink—was the most important part of the process, says Rice, who grew up drinking tea in Seattle. The leaves, which are grown in Pāhala on Hawai‘i Island, are boiled for about 20 minutes, then steeped for another 20, creating a tea that boasts maximum flavor and potency.
By late February 2016, the couple received the first shipment of 18,000 Shaka Tea bottles in three flavors: guava gingerblossom, pineapple mint and mango hibiscus.
They secured the first order from chef Ed Kenney’s Kaimukī Superette the following month and, in just three months, will be in more than 60 restaurants and shops on O‘ahu, Maui, Hawai‘i Island and Kaua‘i, including the shelves of some Foodland and Times supermarkets. Three percent of the company's profits support Ho‘oulu ʻĀina, an organization that addresses the health needs of Kalihi Valley.
“It’s extremely refreshing and a very, very low-calorie product,” Hughes says. “There’s no added sugar, either. It’s the type of tea you can eat with a sandwich or dessert. And we love that it’s a local product.”
The two just returned from the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, where their bottled teas were a hit. Companies from California to Korea expressed interest in Shaka Tea. One trade publication dubbed it the next “super leaf.”
They plan to unveil a few new flavors—lemon rose and something with lemongrass and liliko‘i—by next year.